Addressing the question, “Why don’t we have a white student union?” SAB and Student Affairs co-hosted a discussion this past Monday.
This question recently emerged after a Twitter account was created by an assumed-Messiah student. The account with the name @MessiahWSU was brought to the attention of Messiah students when it began addressing Messiah’s Black Student Union and arguing with other students and alumni.
The issue was taken to Kevin Villegas, Director of Student Involvement and Leadership Programs, who took the Twitter account to authorities for further investigation. In order to provide an outlet for students to move forward and discuss any questions or concerns regarding the situation, a discussion session was decided upon.
The goal of Monday’s discussion was to address the situation in a respectful way. “We are each speaking from our own experiences,” reminds Jonathan Wolf, SAB’s Cultural Engagement Executive.
Students directed their questions to a panel of Messiah community members, who each gave their personal perspective on the situation based on their cultural backgrounds and past experiences. The panel members included Scott Hwang, Director of Multicultural Programs, Jocelyn Chavous, Vice President of Diversity Affairs, Lydia Ellsworth, a senior Ethnic and Area Studies student, Noami Henry, President of the Black Student Union, and Lucas Sheaffer, an adjunct professor in English.
Some of the questions addressed racial tensions, while others were directed specifically at the White Student Union situation.
One card asked, “When does something become racist?”
Hwang answered saying we all have inherently racist thoughts without trying, but when we deny that something is offensive to another person, that’s when something becomes racist.
Henry followed up by saying, “Try to be introspective about the way you’re thinking about things.”
Another question was, “Why don’t we just have an all-inclusive Student Union?”
Chavous says, “The groups at Messiah are open to everyone. I think having an all-encompassing group is a good idea,” and explains that the purpose of individual groups is to bring attention to specific races and cultures.
Hwang further explains, “In an ideal world, it would be nice to have just one union. It’s human nature to want to be with people you’re comfortable with.”
Henry adds that the purpose of the various cultural groups on campus is to provide students with the opportunity to learn about other cultures. “These groups are for us to learn more about each other and engage in conversations,” she says.
The conversation then turned towards whether or not a “white student union” would be racist. Some students felt it was oppressive of the College to deny such a group or assume it would be racist, while others agreed the creation of such a group doesn’t further the purpose of Messiah’s cultural goals.
Sheaffer explains how student unions allow minorities to find a place to feel safe and receive healing and reconciliation. “Think truly and honestly about the intention behind such a group and see if it matches with the intentions of other groups on campus,” he advises.
Overall, the discussion had a high attendance, and many students participated by asking questions and continuing the conversation. Villegas concludes, “We hope this is just the start of having these courageous conversations. I think it’s important that we remain respectful, listen deeply to each other, and listen to each other’s perspectives. If we do that, we can move forward.”
Reflecting on the situation and the discussion, Chavous says, “The situation itself was very shocking at first and caused a lot of students to reflect on why we don’t have a student union. I think having this event was great because a lot of people came out with great questions. I think people learned a lot about diversity at Messiah.”
Although many students are interested in the idea of one universal student union, individual student groups and unions are also important. “The benefits of having a Black Student Union is to have a place for a culture that is underrepresented,” explains Henry. “A lot of students don’t already have an understanding of black culture. The point of Black Student Union is not only to have a safe space for black students but to have a space for majority students to also come discuss black issues.”
Other student attendees also enjoyed the discussion and the opportunity it provided.
“I was really refreshed by how some of the students were vulnerable and honest about the questions they had even though the questions might be seen as ignorant,” says Leslie Giboyeaux, President of La Alianza Latina. “It’s hard to get people to be honest and ask those hard questions. The event was set up in a way that allowed students to do that.”
“I feel that the meeting went very well,” explains sophomore Kelly Bahata. “It showed me there are students on campus who want to have this conversation, and the fact that we went over [time] showed me that there is still more to talk about.”
Wolf also felt the discussion ended on a positive note. “While the creation of the White Student Union page has caused a lot of pain and frustration for many students, he says, “I think it has also been the catalyst for students to have challenging and transformative conversations about race and equality, which, in my opinion, will be a net positive for campus.”
Moving forward, students hope that cultural engagement on campus will continue to evolve as more students join the conversation. Jonathan Fuller, Student Body President, remarks, “What I appreciate most about our cultural engagement here at Messiah is how we try to actually confront harmful attitudes and embrace diversity as a part of our commitment to value each individual and work for God’s kingdom.”
If you have any questions or concerns about this situation or general cultural engagement on campus, you can send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated on 10/28/15.